Miné Okubo, [Miné and Toku standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California], 1942. Drawing. Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, gift of Miné Okubo Estate, 2007.62.
Miné Okubo, [Miné and Toku standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California], 1942. Drawing. Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, gift of Miné Okubo Estate, 2007.62.

There is something in the art of Mine Okubo that is irresistible—is it its playfulness or its seriousness? Or, is it her ability to execute both simultaneously? The exhibition, Citizen 13660: The Art of Mine Okubo, now at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, celebrates the artist’s groundbreaking 1946 book of the same name, Citizen 13660. The book has the distinction of being the very first illustrating the evacuation and internment from a first person perspective. And what a perspective it was.

Okubo most often inserted herself in the line drawings that chronicle her deteriorating journey from freedom into incarceration. She was able to capture images with a kind of emotional weight that would be difficult or impossible photographically. Though simple in outward appearance, her quick and spontaneous line-drawn images have an immediate quality that offers an emotional strike with lightness and sure aim.

The exhibition is less about the book and its illustrations, than it is about the person and artistry of Mine Okubo. Only two original images from the book are here on loan from the Japanese American National Museum because of loan restrictions, but a half dozen reproductions float like banners above, adding appropriate airiness to the viewer experience and taking advantage of the high ceiling and small footprint of the gallery space.

Born in 1912, east of Los Angeles, in Riverside California, Okubo was a well educated and working artist when the war broke out in 1941. Many personal artifacts from the Riverside Community College District’s Mine Okubo Collection for Social Justice and Civil Liberties help tell her life’s story and how the internment experience shaped her and turned her into the activist artist that she became. Other items from the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, and UCLA Special collections are also included.

Her versatility as an artist is also displayed here. Okubo worked on a literary and artistic review publication during her incarceration at Topaz, called Trek. Those three volumes are in a display case, and an interactive video allows access to every page. Her illustrations have a playful and spontaneous feel to them and show yet another side of this artist.

Also included are five paintings from the war years and a half dozen from her post war career. Although she had a successful New York career as an illustrator for commercial magazines after the war, none of that work is presented here.

What is included is her wartime painting Dust Storm (1942), and what a masterpiece it is. It singularly casts any doubt of her genius and talent far and away. Most certainly art supplies were dear during internment, thus causing her to pour her artistic energy into over 2000 line sketches (less than 200 were published in Citizen 13660). However, looking at Dust Storm, one could only imagine what she could have accomplished with more.

This is a modest and minimalist exhibition, and is appropriately paired with Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams. It provides another way to view the internment experience and hear another artist’s voice. Nested in a single gallery room across the hall, it is like Okubo illustrations—both powerful and light.

The ‘Citizen 13660: The Art of Mine Okubo’ exhibit will be at Skirball Cultural Center Museum in Los Angeles through February 21, 2016.

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